Behind the conveyer belt that thousands of Framingham State University students deposit used dishes and uneaten food on every day is a behind-the-scenes effort to turn that same food waste into a useful agricultural aid.
Composting is growing in popularity through the efforts of environmental activists, but is also required by law in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, where recent composting requirement laws can even result in fines for consumers who throw food in the trash.
While Massachusetts laws are not as strict, a food waste ban, that became effective on Oct. 1st, 2014, requires food establishments that produce over a ton of waste per month to dispose of it in a method other than depositing it in a landfill.
FSU consumers produce approximately 150 to 600 pounds in post-consumer food each day – numbers that can be observed on poster-sized calendars above the dish deposit in the dining commons.
Post-consumer waste is food that has been touched by consumers. Pre-consumer waste, which is food that is disposed of before consumer use, is difficult to measure, according to FSU Director of Food Services Ralph Eddy, because it varies widely depending on the food being served and how much inedible “trim” the types of food have.
Eddy said the variance in post-consumer waste is most often the result of menu experimentation and the “all you can eat” setting of the dining commons.
“The majority of our waste does get generated from consumers,” he said. “That waste typically comes from people grazing through the dining commons and taking a plate of this, a plate of that, then only eating some of it. We’re trying to create some awareness behind that so people can sort of self-select.”
Most of the food wasted by FSU is composted within the dining facilities. The food is initially compacted in a garbage disposal. Then, most of the moisture is expelled in a pulper. The mixture is then processed in one of two dehydrators located in a room adjacent to the kitchen. The dry, “saw-dust like” material is then picked up by a composting facility, WeCare Organics, according to Eddy.
The small amount of food that cannot be processed using this method is discarded in a garbage disposal and deposited into the sewer system, but Eddy said food services is looking for alternatives to this method.
“We’re working with a consultant that specializes in diverting food waste from landfills and alternative methods of dealing with it,” said Eddy.
While FSU composts most of its food waste, food services is still focused on making evaluative efforts to reduce overall waste.
“It has such an impact on a global economy,” said Eddy. “Not only in terms of carbon emissions but just the fact that so many people in this world are food insecure and the fact that that much food does get wasted.”
An average American wastes about one-third of the food he or she purchases, according to Eddy.
“So if you think about that on an annual basis, how much of an impact that could have in our own community. How much of an impact it could have, you know, in this country and worldwide for that matter.”
As an effort to track and evaluate food waste, FSU has invested in LeanPath system and software – a scale system that is able to measure food waste and generate several reports such as food waste in pounds, food waste in dollar amount, and number of transactions entered into the system.
The purpose of the LeanPath system is to “track what is wasted or left over and allows us to identify a cost associated with that and then take the actual steps to reduce any waste that might be occurring,” according to Eddy.
FSU has been using this system for two years, but it has been utilized inconsistently due to operational challenges.
For the past 10 weeks, however, the LeanPath system has had its longest streak of consistent use due to the efforts of student Sustainability Coordinator Julianna Coughlin.
Coughlin is a senior nutrition major who was assigned to implement the LeanPath system by Eddy as her case study for her internship with food services.
Coughlin said when she was assigned this case study, she was not enthusiasticabout it, but has grown to be very passionate about the work she does.
“I kind of take things head on and it actually kind of has started to hit home, because I didn’t really think about it, but I don’t really like wasting food at all. … So I guess through working with this I’ve become more passionate about it and more involved.”
Her job is to ensure food services workers are consistently using the system, so she can generate reports, observe food waste trends, then work to solve the problem.
Coughlin said currently, according to the reports, FSU’s most significant issue is an excess of vegetables.
One of Coughlin’s goals is to generate more use of the LeanPath system by other FSU food locations, such as food retailers and catering. She said these groups do use it sometimes, but most LeanPath use is by the main dining commons.
She said it is important to reduce food waste because “all the food that we throw out, that’s food that could go somewhere else. Not only is that food we’re taking from the environment and taking from someone else’s plate essentially, it’s our money that we are literally throwing in the garbage because we already bought that food.”
She said many other food services employees are also passionate about reducing food waste, specifically employees “who come from other countries and have seen people who are starving and they do not want to waste anything.”
Student Mitchell Johnson has also been working in the dining commons for over two years, and is currently the student manager of the dining commons and SWAT (Stop Waste Action Team) leader.
“Since becoming a part of this team, waste reduction has become more important to me and I have been noticing a lot of ways that we can reduce our waste production,” said Mitchell.
He said reducing food waste will save money for FSU, Sodexo, and FSU students, as well as helping to preserve the environment.
Mitchell said he would like to see a reduction in post-consumer waste.
“Any time you walk into the dining commons you can see food spread across countertops and on the floor,” said Mitchell. “Also, many plates of food are sent down the dish disposal conveyer belt that were not touched. This waste, although sometimes unavoidable, is something that I would love to see reduced.”
Senior Alyssa Duprey, former president of FSU’s Green Team said she is conscious about her own food waste “because it’s a waste of our resources, and any waste is a waste to me.”
She said in order to reduce food waste, FSU dining should offer fewer “dishes that have all the elements of a dinner and more buffet options,” because “this is only an issue with the main meals.”
Green Team Vice President Megan Quinn said she would like to see a compost station on campus for all organic waste.
“If we had a compost pile we could have a garden with fresh soil and veggies for the cafeteria,” she said.
She added, “For a university that is nationally recognized for its green campus, we could be doing a lot more with our waste issue.”
Former member of the Green Team James Menard was pleased to find out FSU composts because he is conscious about the food he wastes.
“My family has always been very strict about food waste. My family has never been wealthy – barely middle-class at best, in fact. There has never been an excess of food, and throwing away food simply because “I took too much” or “I don’t like this” has never been an option.
“While this reason is hardly environmentally focused, the end result is the same,” Menard said.
He added, “People here seem to have a disconnect between the food on their plates right at that very moment, where that food came from and where it’s going when they’re done with it. The food doesn’t come from thin air – there are impacts on the environment that come from getting that food on your plate and impacts on the environment that come from where it is disposed.”